Land Rights in Poor Countries Is a Hot Cause for More Funders. Here's Why

We reported recently on how the land rights group Landesa won the Hilton Humanitarian Prize, which is given annually to a “a nonprofit organization doing extraordinary work to reduce human suffering.” Landesa received the latest award of $2 million in unrestricted funding.

Why did land rights attract Hilton's attention instead of other efforts that certainly help to alleviate human suffering like access to quality education or gender rights? The short answer to this question is that land rights is access to education, food security, gender rights, human rights and then some, all rolled into one issue.

Some two to three billion people around the world live on less than $2 a day. Of those billions, 75 to 80 percent are rural farmers, many of whom have no legal control over the land they farm. Landowners give the farmers permission to use the land, however, these guarantees are rarely long term. So, farmers have no incentive to make durable investments in the property such as irrigation systems and greenhouses. Yet investments such as these boost agricultural productivity, thereby improving economic security, food security, and education.

Another global challenge inextricably linked to land rights is gender equality. If securing land rights for poor men is challenging, it’s even more so for women.

Women make up around 40 to 50 percent of the agricultural workforce in developing countries, in general. In some regions, that number is higher—for example, in Southern Asia, nearly 70 percent of employed women work in agriculture. Even with statistics as high as these, most women can't secure land rights. More often than not, the only way they can secure those rights is through a male relative. Should a woman divorce, become widowed or be abandoned by her family, she is left landless.

In many parts of the world, landlessness is synonymous with abject poverty. According to Landesa President and CEO Chris Jochnick, in India, “the greatest predictor of poverty isn’t illiteracy or low caste. The greatest predictor of poverty is landlessness.”

Land rights as it relates to gender equality is an issue that Landesa has taken up in recent years, and is currently expanding its work with women and girls. But Landesa isn’t the only player in this field, and it is joined by a host of likeminded funders such as the Omidyar Network, and the Gates, Rockefeller, and Ford foundations, as well as, The MasterCard Foundation which are also devoting millions of dollars to the issue.

Related: Here’s How the Omidyar Network Wants to Create More Landowners

Landesa’s history is an interesting one. In the mid-1960s, founder Roy Prosterman, a professor at University of Washington’s School of Law, wrote a law review article that would change the trajectory of his career and his life. The article, titled "Land Reform in Latin America: How to Have a Revolution without a Revolution," would attract the attention of the U.S. government, which sent him to test his multiple land rights theories in the middle of the Vietnam War. Prosterman accepted, and in the span of three years, he was granted land rights to an estimated 1 million tenant farmers across the war-torn country.

Other countries saw that Prosterman was on to something, and he and his small team began traveling the world to help governments create pro-poor land reform laws and programs. In 1981, Prosterman established the Rural Development Institute, which would later be renamed Landesa.

Landesa continues Prosterman’s mission of partnering with local governments and organizations to develop “pro-poor and gender sensitive laws, policies and programs that protect and strengthen land rights for the poorest people.” No doubt that $2 million in general support from Hilton will come in pretty handy.